A Benton County jury this morning found Mauricio Torres, 45, guilty of capital murder and first degree battery after a brief deliberation. The jury heard closing arguments from attorneys this morning after the defense rested without calling witnesses.
The trial will not be over, however, until sentencing is complete. This afternoon, the jury has heard from a number of other children and stepchildren of Mauricio Torres who claim their father or stepfather subjected them to physical and sexual abuse in the early 2000s. The jury will determine whether to sentence Torres to death or life in prison without parole. We’ll have full coverage of the sentencing phase after it’s complete.
Torres is the Bella Vista father accused of killing his 6-year-old son, Isaiah Torres, early last year. The child’s mother, Cathy Torres, will be tried for murder separately next year.
Last week, prosecutors spent three days building their case against Torres, including hours of recorded police interviews with the defendant and testimony from one of Isaiah’s sisters as to the abuse her parents directed towards her younger brother. Dr. Stephen Erickson, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy, showed the jury graphic photos of scars, bruises, lacerations and puncture wounds covering the boy’s body, and told them that there was “no doubt whatsoever that this child was subjected to a prolonged period of abuse” before he suffered the injury that caused his death: a stick inserted into his anus, which caused acute peritonitis and led to septic shock.
Torres did not take the stand in the trial.
The evidence that Mauricio and Cathy Torres are responsible for Isaiah’s death was incontrovertible. Mauricio admitted to police that he did indeed insert the stick into his son’s anus, as “punishment,” on a camping trip the family took to Missouri on March 29, 2015. According to the defendant, Cathy Torres then shoved the boy in anger, which caused the fatal trauma. Mauricio Torres claimed they didn’t realize the boy was severely injured, and that they thought he was only suffering from a “stomach ache” when they drove back home to Arkansas that evening; they gave him Pepto Bismal. The parents called 911 that night, and Isaiah was pronounced dead at the hospital soon thereafter.
With a guilty verdict of some kind virtually a foregone conclusion, the real question was always whether the jury would convict Torres on the charge of capital murder or the lesser included offense of first degree murder. That question led to two others. First, should what Mauricio Torres did to his son be considered rape, or could it be construed as an exceptionally cruel but nonsexual form of punishment? Second, did Torres intend to actually cause Isaiah’s death? To win a capital murder conviction, prosecutors needed to prove one or the other: either that rape occurred or that Torres “knowingly caused the death of a child.”
In the recorded police interviews, Torres seems confused as to why his behavior would be considered rape, and defense attorneys argued that the punishment — while grotesque — was not sexual in nature. But Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith told the jury this morning that Isaiah’s death was a “sadistic act of sexual torture. … You know that is an act of sexual gratification just based on common sense.”
Defense attorney Bill James argued that there was no evidence Mauricio Torres did what he did to Isaiah for sexual gratification. “This is not a rape case. There’s absolutely no proof of that. You can assume all you want, but the problem is that … [the prosecutor] has to prove it,” he said. But Smith said that line of argument was “absurd” and that the defense was effectively arguing that “the worse a rape becomes … the more demented it becomes … the less criminal it is.” Smith said, “you can’t crawl up in the defendant’s head and read his mind. No one can do that. You look to his actions and the surrounding circumstances.”
As for the second route to capital murder, Smith argued, Mauricio Torres — who worked as an occupational therapist assistant — would have known his and his wife’s actions would likely lead to their son’s death. The prosecutor reminded the jury of something the medical examiner said yesterday: Had Isaiah Torres’ injuries been treated quickly, the boy would have likely survived. “Had they [called 911] a couple hours after the fact, he’d probably be alive today. Why didn’t they? Because they had committed a crime,” Smith said. And even if the defendant’s account of Cathy’s role in the murder was accurate, “you have the concept of accomplice liability as well.”
James told the jury the prosecutor was “hoping you’re going to disregard the facts and go with emotion on this.” He’s argued from the beginning that Smith’s team was attempting to “throw gas on the fire” by alleging rape and by eliciting testimony from Isaiah’s sister, a young child, which contained various shocking allegations. He pointed out that some lurid details described by the girl couldn’t be substantiated. “The truth has got to stand for something, no matter how bad this case is,” he said.
The jury evidently found it quite easy to conclude capital murder occurred, however. After a break for lunch following closing arguments, it took less than an hour to reach its verdict.